Call me naïve, but I really thought that when I became Jewish, people would understand what that meant. After all, Jews aren’t Christian and, therefore, do not profess a belief in Jesus. (Side note: I’m aware of Messianic Jews but we consider them to be Christian, not Jewish.) Again and again, I’m confronted by people who want to know how I marry my Jewish beliefs with a belief in Jesus. And when I tell them that I don’t believe in Jesus, which is precisely why I became a Jew in the first place, they get this horrified look on their face that transitions to a sympathetic one after a few seconds.
I get that it’s a shock to people that I can be a Christian for my entire life and then “reject” Jesus and become Jewish. For a lot, it’s a hard pill to swallow. Take, for example, my experience this morning when I was checking out at the Hallmark store. I asked the manager if she anticipated any Hanukkah items arriving later this year, and she said that after the Halloween stuff moved out, she’d have some. She went on to share that she has friends who are “Christian Jews” and that they celebrate Hanukkah. I mumbled that I was a former Christian, and she said, “Well, then, you can have a Christmas tree and a menorah!” She looked quite pleased with herself until I explained that I didn’t celebrate Christmas because I didn’t believe in Jesus because I am Jewish. Her face fell and she practically whined, “You don’t believe in Jesus?!” She then added, “But my friends do!” I kindly explained that her friends may consider themselves Jewish, but we do not. At that point, we were both feeling uncomfortable and I just wanted to get my things and get out of there.
I don’t want to have to tell my story over and over again, but when they give me that sympathetic look – like I might be struck by a lightning bolt at any second – I feel compelled to explain. Explain that I always felt like a fake at church, and that praying to Jesus was something I rarely did because it didn’t feel right, and that Easter used to fill me with utter dread and I didn’t know why. I have to explain that I never felt any form of connection to Jesus and, once I learned about what Jews were looking for in the Messiah, I was relieved to understand that it didn’t describe Jesus. At all. I have to explain that I don’t believe I’ll be punished for rejecting Jesus, as many Christians believe, because to have that belief, you have to believe in Jesus in the first place. I have to explain that Jews believe that there is more than one path to God, and that you can find your spirituality and your connection to The Divine without ever stepping inside a Christian church.
And then I wonder – why do I have to explain anything to anyone at all? Why is it anyone’s business?
When I went home to Indiana for my high school reunion last month, I attended the GriefShare class that my mom has been going to at a Baptist church in her town. I wore my Star of David necklace and quietly watched the videos, which are, of course, heavily Christian in nature. When it came time to discuss, I spoke up, but I didn’t hide the fact that I wasn’t Christian and was now Jewish. I gave a two sentence explanation of how my parents ended up with a Jewish daughter, and it was a bit awkward because the pastor of the church was taking the class, but when I started explaining the Mourner’s Kaddish and how I pray that every day in remembrance of my father, the pastor gave me a thumb’s up and explained that he was a hospital chaplain for twelve years and understood Jewish customs well. After the class was over, many of the attendees came up to me to thank me for coming and for participating, and they gave my mom feedback later that they’d enjoyed my different take on mourning and grief. A few ask about my Judaism, but they didn’t do so with judgement. I’m glad, because my mom doesn’t deserve scorn from fellow Christians just because I chose to take a walk in life. And I might not believe everything they taught in that class, but there is no denying how very wonderful GriefShare is for my mom right now. (My rabbi recommended that she take the class, after all, and also agrees that it’s great!)
The bottom line is that I’m not hiding who I am, but I also don’t owe anyone an explanation of why I chose to “reject” Jesus. Eventually, I know I’ll probably stop even referencing my former Christian life. I’m not there yet, as Judaism is still new-ish to me, even though it’s the life I’ve been living for almost two years. I still feel somewhat caught in the middle – in love with my new journey, but carrying 36 years of baggage from my old journey. As the years go by, I’m hoping those bags fall away and that I can simply smile when someone mentions Christianity or Jesus in reference to my religion. I wait anxiously for the day when I can say “no thank you” and move on without needing to explain or defend myself. My path might be different than yours, filled with different holidays, symbols, prayers, and customs, but it’s just as beautiful. To me, it is more so because here I have found peace.